Liberalism and the individual
Posted by Matt Walker on July 7, 2011
Political ideologies have a set of core values which make them what they are. Michael Freeden likens this to a room in a house. A kitchen is defined as such because of the furniture within it, so that we couldn’t call a room a kitchen without a perhaps a cooker in it.
Just like a cooker is essential for a kitchen, individualism is essential for our understanding of liberalism. We tend to take the significance of individualism for granted in 21st Century Britain. Our individual human rights are reasonably well-embedded: we vote, we say and think as we please, and have a right to life and own property, all protected by the state. Furthermore, within the consumer society in which we live we are encouraged to value individual choice. So much so, that we automatically expect choice in almost every area of our lives, whether it is buying a new mobile phone or deciding where we should send our children to school. The current government’s NHS reforms are part of the same trend.
To a large extent, 21st Century Britain is the product of over a century of liberal thought. Following the breakdown of feudal society and the onset of industrialisation and enlightened thought, people have increasingly thought of themselves as individuals, rather than part of wider social groups within which their own identities were subsumed. Furthermore, with the development of science and rational thought over the past 200 years or so, adherence to religious belief has declined, which has perhaps encouraged people to look less beyond themselves, and more into themselves.
Hence, liberalism has focussed on the sovereignty of the individual, stipulating that was up to the individual and rational human being to decide what was best for themselves, rather than some other authority bossing them about. And once you accept this, it is a very short step to say that an individual’s human rights need protecting.